Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category
Life on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May). The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.
If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides. Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.
I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan. I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans. The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!
It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided! I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge. Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.
If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind. The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping. When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set. In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar, Dhail Beag, Bosta, Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.
The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides. Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds. Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge. One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight. We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting. When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged! We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.
The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out. We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip. There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.
Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty. Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp. We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day. There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.
I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings. As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés. Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts. We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing. I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!
The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean. Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison. This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.
Outer Hebrides Visitor Website http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/
On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I inadvertently spent the night in a campervan with a captured crow for company. The bird was not in the van, lest you’re wondering, but trapped in a cage on the edge of the moor. The wild bird, or Larsen trap, is quite legal, and supposedly humane – the trapped bird must have shelter, water, food and a perch. But there was nothing humane in seeing a caged bird die.
The traps are supposed to be checked at least every 24 hours, and I have no reason to suppose that the person who set the trap did not do so. I wonder as to the efficacy of such interventions in the course of the natural world. Sometimes members of the corvine clan are caught for research, sometimes to avoid decimation of the songbird population, and sometimes because they affect the livelihood of estates. I don’t know why this particular bird was caught, but it was scared and alone. One moment it was cawing in the dawn, and the next it was dead.
Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper (Larsen) in the 1950s, but are now banned in that country because the traps are viewed as inhumane for trapping magpies and crows. Recent research has indicated that corvines are particularly intelligent, and for any intelligent animal being caged can never be humane.
I know people will always have arguments to support such activity, and rural poverty will always get my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling that this poor animal was a victim of the profit principle – protecting game bird young from the natural predation by crows and magpies. I suppose that crows are not in decline, and need no protection, but they have young too; maybe a crow family has starved to death whilst its parent died of terror in the bottom of a cage.
I can’t help feeling that there’s not much humanity in murdering a crow, indeed, any creature, and that with artificially high numbers of game birds in the countryside the odd captured crow isn’t really going to make much difference. As usual our interventions upset the balance of nature, whether we support or decry her.
I toyed with the idea of releasing the bird and risking ‘mischief with intent’ but decided that I did not know enough about why it was there to intervene. I wish now I had let it go.
Most of us, at some time or another like to get ‘away from it all’, and a holiday is the ideal opportunity to do just that. In this age of connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G, very few of us actually manage a real break from our inter-connected, online, 24/7 lives. There are probably few places in the UK outside the reach of technology, but in the far North West of Scotland there are still places where you can’t get a mobile phone signal, never mind the internet, so those who get the jitters when they can’t check their Twitter or Facebook accounts regularly, beware!
I have just returned from a delightful week wild camping in one of the few places in the UK where wilderness really does still exist. Now I am the first to admit that the idea of being under canvas and digging holes in the woods for shitting in, in wild and wet September, is not my idea of fun. So, yes I was in a motorhome, sheltered from the vagaries of the UK weather, with chemical loo and cooking facilities, but make no mistake, if you chose to eschew the facilities of caravan and camping sites, you are very much out there on your own.
Scotland has an enlightened view of land use, and actively encourages people to get out there and explore. The Land reform Act (2003) which came into effect in February 2005 establishes a statutory right to camp in the wild, repealing a section in the Trespass Act of 1865 which contained the offence of ‘camping on land without the owner’s consent’. We can argue about the impact of tourism on wild places, erosion, and the louts who ‘take more than photographs and leave more than footprints’, but that is for another day. Most people who wild camp do so responsibly and follow the best practice guidance which is issued with the act, and most of which is common sense. Michael Surman, owner operator at ‘Outthere Campers’, where we hired the van from, actively encourages people to get out and explore the Scottish Highlands, which he believes is every bit as dramatic as his native South Africa. Certainly taking a van out and camping off-line is the ideal way to experience some of the Highland’s wild places and wildlife. On this trip I saw my first sea otter, and spotted a golden eagle, which looked like a jet on the horizon; I took a ferry to the most north westerly point on the British mainland and walked over a 25m swing bridge suspended high above a box-canyon cut by ancient melt-water . I’m not fit enough to climb mountains or fearless enough to raft white water, but if that’s your thing, the highlands are the place to do it. In this fast-paced techno world we so often have our backs to nature, tuned out of natural sounds, sights and smells. Getting back to nature may not be achievable, or even desirable for most people, but a few weeks a year with an absence of electrical interference and 24/7 communications is surprisingly refreshing.
John Muir the pioneering, influential Scots-born American conservationist who was passionate about the wild, said that ‘one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books’ and whilst as an avid bibliophile and bookworm, I may not 100% agree with the statement, I certainly agree with the sentiment. There is something about exposure to raw nature that is exhilarating and life-affirming. Nature isn’t necessarily all that peaceful and tranquil: a river in spate, or a waterfall after a storm is a noisy affair, and trying to sleep when the wind is howling and the rain is pelting in sheets across the landscape you’re inhabiting is not necessarily relaxing, but it can be. There is a soothing hypnotic quality to rushing water, like white noise, that you can chill out to or engage with. Sunshine is great, and always welcome, but there is something magnificent about the power of a storm or an angry sea.
Living in a campervan or motor home for a week may cosset you against the worse of the elements, but if you take the opportunity to live ‘off-grid’ and camp wild, you do become aware of the resources you use on a daily basis, as well as how little ‘stuff’ you actually need. Water may come out of the tap, but the supply is limited by the capacity of the on-board tank; the electricity is not on mains, and won’t power a plethora or electrical gadgetry indefinitely; heating and cooking are via gas, which again is limited by the size of canister. You can see how much packaging is on the things you buy, and how much waste you generate; grey water has to be disposed of, and there’s no putting sanitary or food items down the plug hole – they will not magically disappear! Tesco, thank goodness, is not on every corner, and if you run out of something you are unlikely to be able to pop out and get it! It’s a good life-lesson if you take it away with you -the earth’s resources are limited, however we chose to live.
Getting out there and wild camping for a week or two is not primarily for didactic purposes, but enjoyment and refreshment, anything else is a by-product of the experience. You may not have to hunt down supper and cook it over a camp fire, but you will have to find somewhere suitable to camp that doesn’t see your wheels sink in mud, or down a drainage ditch; you will soon learn to work out which way is the prevailing wind direction, and how tall your vehicle is. You may not need the survival skills of Ray Mears, but if things go wrong you may need your wits about you, as a mobile phone signal cannot be relied upon, and practical decision making may save the day. There are areas in northern Scotland that are uninhabited, where few man- made structures exist and only the deer, wildcats, pine martins and eagles roam. Scottish wilderness may be readily accessible by motor vehicle, boat or foot, but it is still wilderness, to be treasured, preserved and enjoyed. So what are you waiting for? Get out there!